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Ancient and modern: Iran's lush cuisine

As talk goes nuclear, a journalist gets a taste of the culture.

By / March 14, 2012

A Tehran shopkeeper offers buyers a cut pomegranate.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

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Persian cuisine has survived Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and the conquest of Islam. So I figured I couldn't do too much damage by trying out a recipe or two myself.

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Armed with Najmieh Batmanglij's newly updated cookbook, "Food of Life: Ancient Per­sian and Modern Iran­ian Cooking and Cere­mon­ies," I marched into the supermarket to find pomegranate molasses, saffron, and barberries.

Alas, I was in Vermont. In the winter. Nary a pomegranate seed to be found. I did find saffron – in the Mexican aisle. Barberries? I didn't even know what those were. (It wasn't until later that I discovered the tiny print in an appendix: Barberries are a small, tart red fruit.)

But I was undeterred – and hungry to know something about Iran besides its controversial nuclear program, which I deal with frequently as the Monitor's Middle East editor.

With some creativity, extra hands, and the lenience of my family and our guests – "It's not like you're cooking for the shah," my husband reminded me – we pulled off respectable versions of Jeweled Rice and Pomegranate Khoresh with Chicken, a braised meat dish.

At a time when the US media seem to have forgotten that there are actual people living in Iran – people throwing snowballs, falling in love, nourishing their friends and families – it could be worthwhile for Americans to get a taste of daily life there.

That has been a key objective for Ms. Batmanglij in writing five Persian cookbooks; this latest one even includes an 18-step guide to planning an Iranian wedding, including advice (which Americans could probably heed as well) about how not to annoy your future in-laws.

From Tehran originally, Batmanglij has lived in exile since the 1979 Iranian revolution. She revealed a clear affection for her country, however, in a recent phone conversation from her kitchen in America's capital, where many elected officials and think tank analysts are pushing for increasingly harsh measures against the Iranian regime.

"Above all, I wanted Iran associated with good things – pomegranates, saffron, pistachios," says the celebrated chef, who believes Persian food reflects the same delicate touch, or letafat, that governs the Persian arts. "I wanted to show the best of Iran."

Indeed, photographs in "Food of Life" show not only beautiful meals, but everything from Persian pottery to Persian poetry, revered for centuries – not least of all as a way to express one's feelings during times of political repression.

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